Johnny Raper

Club Appearances: 180

Club Debut Year: 1959

Club Final Year: 1969

Position: Lock

Club Points: 149

Club Tries: 47

Club Field Goals: 4

Representative Honours:

  • NSW v Qld: 24
  • NSW v Int: 7
  • Australia: 39
Appearances breakdown:

  • St George: 180
Points breakdown:

  • St George: 149

‘Not only has there been his great football skill, but consider his durability and the remarkable way he has sustained his enthusiasm,’ wrote Tom Goodman of Johnny Raper in 1968. ‘His consistency, surely, has never been excelled.’ Said Jack Gibson: ‘There was an intensity about him. Nobody trained like he did.’

Ken Kearney reckoned Raper was

‘the perfect cover defender’.

In 1970, Frank Facer called him

‘the greatest rugby league player ever seen in any country’.

Facer had convinced Raper to sign with St George for the 1959 season, after the young lock had played two seasons with Newtown. He would wear the Red V for 11 years, winning eight premierships. He was Saints captain-coach in 1969, played 39 Tests for Australia, went on three Kangaroo tours and was the victorious Australian captain at the 1968 World Cup. He was one of the original Immortals.

Raper arrived at St George with no guarantees. He was given the No. 15 jumper, essentially a reserve forward, but was picked at lock for round 1 after Peter Provan was injured in the last pre-season trial. His place was never under threat again, as St George defeated Parramatta 46–7, and he received two votes from judge Alf O’Connor in the Sun-Herald’s player of the competition.

‘Worked in with backs, did a great amount of work in defence,’ wrote O’Connor.

Raper played for City Firsts, NSW and Australia in his first year in the Red V, and in his second was named vice-captain for the first Test against France.

‘It is unusual for a forward so young as Raper, who is only 21, to be chosen as leader of a pack of Test forwards,’ observed Rugby League News. ‘But Raper has been playing the type of football which cannot fail but inspire his team-mates.’

He played in the 1959 Grand Final as a centre, after Johnny Riley and Reg Gasnier withdrew, and in the 1962 Grand Final at five-eighth, after Brian Clay broke his arm. He was many critics’ man of the match when Saints beat Balmain 23–4 in 1966. At Test level, perhaps his finest performance came at Swinton in 1963, when Australia thrashed England 50–12, scoring 12 tries, and Raper was heavily involved in half of them, prompting The Sydney Morning Herald to write:

‘The great lock has played well for Australia before but this might well have been his finest game.’

He was the NSW Rugby League’s official player of the year for 1960 and 1964, and the Sun-Herald’s player of the year in 1960, 1963 and 1967.

Raper didn’t miss a game in his final season at Kogarah, when the St George selectors judged him the club’s player of the season across all grades. However, the absence of Test prop John Wittenberg for several weeks proved costly: Saints finished third on the ladder, but lost the minor semi-final to Manly. He departed to captain-coach Western Suburbs in Newcastle, and at a farewell dinner at St George’s Leagues Club, NSW Rugby League President Bill Buckley told the audience,

‘You are paying tribute to probably the greatest footballer you have seen or are ever likely to see.’

In the years that followed, stories emerged of Raper’s off-field antics that made his playing achievements seem even more remarkable. The journalist Ian Heads described him as ‘a bouncy, likeable extrovert with just a touch of “villain”. Heads continued:

‘Late nights when he lingered too long over a few beers were always followed by punishing training sessions. Raper worked endlessly at his game.’